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U.S. Claims Services, Inc. v. New York State Dep't of Audit and Control

February 20, 2009

IN THE MATTER OF THE APPLICATION OF U.S. CLAIMS SERVICES, INC., PETITIONER,
v.
THE NEW YORK STATE DEPARTMENT OF AUDIT AND CONTROL, OFFICE OF THE STATE COMPTROLLER; HON. THOMAS D. DINAPOLI, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS STATE COMPTROLLER; ALBERT W. BROOKS, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS RECORDS APPEALS OFFICER, NEW YORK OFFICE OF THE STATE COMPTROLLER; AND ERIC DUVALL, IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS DIRECTOR OF SERVICES AND RECORDS ACCESS OFFICER, OFFICE OF THE UNCLAIMED FUNDS, NEW YORK OFFICE OF THE STATE COMPTROLLER, RESPONDENTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Richard M. Platkin, J.

Published by New York State Law Reporting Bureau pursuant to Judiciary Law § 431.

This opinion is uncorrected and subject to revision before publication in the printed Official Reports.

Petitioner U.S. Claims Services, Inc ("US Claims") brings this application pursuant to CPLR Article 78, challenging respondents' denial of a Freedom of Information Law ("FOIL") request. Respondents oppose the petition through an answer.

BACKGROUND

It is the duty of the State Comptroller to maintain a public record of the names and last known addresses of persons appearing to be entitled to abandoned property (Abandoned Property Law ["APL"] § 1401). In addition, the Comptroller shall publish semiannually a statement of abandoned property held by the State, which shall include the names and addresses of persons with an abandoned property claim in an amount of at least twenty dollars ($20.00) (id. § 1402).

On April 1, 2008, petitioner US Claims, an asset finder engaged in the business of assisting individuals and institutions in locating and recovering abandoned property, contacted respondent Office of the State Comptroller ("OSC"), requesting "information on [abandoned property] claims that fall within a [specified] range of dollar values, sorted alphabetically." Petitioner does not seek the precise dollar amount of individual claims, but does seeking a listing of persons having claims falling within a specified range of dollars values (e.g. claims ranging in value from $250 up to $500).

Petitioner's request, made pursuant to FOIL, was forwarded to respondent Eric Duvall, the Director of Services for the Office of Unclaimed Funds, who denied access to the requested records by letter dated July 2, 2008. The denial letter recited, in pertinent part:

As you know, under Section 1401 of the New York State Abandoned Property Law (APL) we cannot reveal dollar amounts for unclaimed accounts, unless the claimant has provided proof of entitlement or a satisfactory interest in the funds. Section 1402 of the APL has a $20 threshold for listing accounts and we maintain a $50 threshold for our Internet website. However, in keeping with the spirit of the law, we do not provide segments of the account owner list based on higher dollar amounts. Doing this allows us to maintain the general confidentiality of the funds and helps to minimize any fraudulent claims.

By letter dated July 10, 2008, petitioner appealed from the above, stating:

As [petitioner] has made clear, [it] is not requesting disclosure of the specific amount of any item of abandoned property, which that provision prohibits. The agency's denial letter therefore does not - and cannot - identify any particular statutory requirement compelling disclosure, and so retreats to an argument based on nothing more than the "spirit of the law." However, this claim flies in the face of the plain language of Abandoned Property Law § 1402, which mandates disclosure of the lists over a specific financial threshold. . . .

Next, while it is true that the agency may have a legitimate interest in "minimiz[ing] fraudulent claims," the withholding of agency records on that ground must be supported by a particularized and specific evidentiary showing that disclosure of the non-claim-specific dollar value ranges requested here . . . would materially increase the risk of fraudulent claims. . . . It is unclear - and the agency's denial sheds no light on - exactly how disclosure of the unclaimed account lists threatens to advance "fraudulent claims." (emphasis in original).

By letter dated July 30, 2008, Albert W. Brooks, the Record Appeals Officer for OSC, affirmed the denial of access to the requested records:

At present, the only information available to the public with respect to any of the claims amounts is that their value is at least fifty dollars. Your client's request for a segregation of claims into specific ranges of dollar values, sorted alphabetically, would result in him having information that significantly narrows the uncertainty regarding the value of the claims to a range of $200 to $250, with respect to claims having a value of $300 but less than $1,000. For claims having a value of $1,000 or more, your client would know the value in any given case is $1,000 or more. . . .

While not actually revealing the precise amount of any particular abandoned property claim held by this Office, the requested segregation would provide substantially more information than is now available to someone who has not presented this Office satisfactory proof of an interest in or title to [any] such property' and in my opinion, would essentially be tantamount to revealing "the amount of any [such] abandoned property". ...


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